Dominant win against TNT shows how lethal Alaska is

Naveen Ganglani
Dominant win against TNT shows how lethal Alaska is
With superior defense and potential to explode on offense, the Aces should be feared by their rivals

MANILA, Philippines – Ranidel de Ocampo scanned the basketball floor, ball in his hands, arms up, head moving left and right. After the veteran couldn’t find an open teammate, he decided to attack the paint, spin, and attempted a floater – a classic move in his deep arsenal of fundamental tricks.

It was slapped by Rob Dozier’s gigantic hand. Blocked. Another missed field goal, and Tropang TNT had a lot of those in a disastrous end to their Commissioner’s Cup title defense – a 99-81 blowout at the hands of an Alaska Aces team which, defensively, looks primed for another deep postseason run.

Dozier, who played his fourth game since returning from a left foot injury, blocked 3 more TNT shots to go with 20 points and 14 rebounds. Calvin Abueva added 18 points and 6 rebounds off the bench. As a team, the Aces drained 44% of their shots, including 53% (8/15) from downtown.

But the most impressive thing Alaska did was on the other side of the floor, where constant communication, timely switching, and incredible paint protection suffocated a vaunted Tropang TNT offense – the same one that dropped 106 on Alaska in Game 1 of this quarterfinal series.

De Ocampo shot just 3-of-10 from the field. Jayson Castro was 2-of-10. Only David Simon (8-of-13), Troy Rosario (5-of-11), and Larry Fonacier (6-of-12) were good, but as a whole, Tropang TNT went only 38% from the floor (29-of-77), plus 20 turnovers.

Against Alaska? That’s asking for trouble. Against Alaska when it’s on fire from offense? That’s signing your own death warrant.

“I know they have super talent,” Alex Compton said of Tropang TNT after the game. “We talked about, well, coming into this game, how our defense would have to be about near perfect. Of course, as a coach, nothing is ever perfect, but that’s about all I can ask of our guys.”

That’s not all, though. Alaska also scored 27 points off turnovers and had 48 points from its bench, compared to 10 and 22 for Tropang TNT. The Aces entered the do-or-die Game 3 with a championship-level mentality, gripping control and tempo from the start of what was supposed to be a tight contest and turning it into a one-sided display of Alaska supremacy.

“I don’t know what to say,” Compton said when he hit the podium at the Smart Araneta Coliseum. That’s how good Alaska was – it left  its coach speechless.

“I thought that was special defensively. Makes me proud to be their coach.”

Not one player of Alaska will probably admit it given how good Shane Edwards was, but Dozier gives this team an edge defensively. He won’t put up 69 points like Al Thornton or go on scoring binges like Tyler Wilkerson, but he’s everywhere else on the floor, doing the little things unnoticed on the stat sheet but contributes to the final score nonetheless.

Need a big rebound? There’s Dozier, flying from out of nowhere to get a second chance scoring opportunity. Need someone to guard perimeter players? That wingspan and athleticism make it so hard to get past him, despite the speed advantage. Ask De Ocampo what it’s like to attack Dozier in the paint – he might just show you a clip of the block.

“I think it helps,” the 30-year-old import said when I asked if his presence makes Alaska an entire different defensive club, “but at the same time I think it’s just the communication and chemistry those guys have together. Playing together 3 years, I just think.

“We’re always talking to each other, boosting each other’s confidence no matter if we’re going through good or bad times during the game. Like I said, I think it’s just communication. That’s the biggest difference.”

He’s right. Alaska’s ability on the defensive side is well-known – just ask San Miguel’s players, who despite dominating the recent rivalry, would probably prefer not to meet the Aces and their constant pressure in another finals.

But when Dozier is manning the middle, this team is so much more lethal. Alaska allowed its opponents to score more than 100 points in 6 of the 9 games Edwards played this conference. In the 4 games Dozier has taken over since, Alaska’s allowed it only twice.

“We have our nights when we can be hot offensively. But I think our calling card since I’ve been playing with this team has always been defense. Defense won us the championship [in 2013],” he said.

That’s the last time the franchise won a title, and it’s been in search of another ever since. There have been multiple instances – the 2014 Governors’ Cup series against Rain or Shine, where had JVee Casio not slipped, who knows if Alaska would have beaten SMC? There’s also the Philippine Cup championship defeats against San Miguel in 2015 and 2016, and the Governors’ Cup title loss to the Beermen in 2015. 

So close, yet just beyond Alaska’s reach. Maybe now with Dozier – someone the team has won a title with before – the Aces finally get across the finish line.

“We weren’t a high-scoring team in 2013….I think we’re a little bit better offensively now than we were back then. I think some of the young guys have gotten older and more confident. Some of the older guys are just going to be who they are,” the import said.

“If we have a good night, we can win offensively and defensively; we’re always going to bring that.”

It’s not going to be easy, of course. And fans dreaming of redemption against the Beermen, who have looked vulnerable this conference, will have to wait. Meralco was arguably the best team in the Commissioner’s Cup elimination round, and with both Vic Manuel (calf) and Casio (knee) injured, the Bolts figure to be the favorite entering the best-of-5 affair that starts on Monday.

But here’s the caveat if you’re a Meralco fan: they haven’t been to as many wars as these Aces. Alaska has been through so many trials and tribulations over these past years that it’s hard to see the team not dictating how the matchup against the Bolts go. Norman Black and Jimmy Alapag will make it tough, but experience shows one thing: veterans of playoff encounters usually come out in the winning end. 

“Talk ’N Text is awesome and we held them to 38% from the field,” Compton said toward the end of his presser, still in disbelief. 

“We’re gonna have a really good chance against teams if we can defend that well.”

If they defend that well, the 15th franchise championship they’ve coveted for so long is likely going to be theirs. –

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